City survivor can still take on the big boys

John Willcock discovers why one of the dwindling band of independents is such a success

John Hodson, chief executive of Singer & Friedlander, stands guard over that rarest of endangered species - an independent, British risk- taking merchant bank. This week it showed off its rude good health by announcing a 57 per cent leap in 1996 profits to pounds 54.80m.

Even stripping out the substantial one-off gain from the sale of Singer's stake in People's Phone, profits still rose 22 per cent, an increase that would have been the envy of Barclays de Zoete Wedd, the UK's premier contender in the investment banking stakes. So how does it do it?

What is most striking about the bank is the handful of interesting business personalities it has attracted. Four years ago, Singers provided Terry Smith, a former analyst with UBS, the Swiss-owned investment bank, with a refuge after he outraged his then employer with a now notorious expose of how companies allegedly cook their books, Accounting for Growth.

Nigel Wray's name has been even more closely associated with the group in recent years. The bank owes its current stock market quotation to the Midas-touched Mr Wray - still a non-executive director - after he merged certain property interests with Singer & Friedlander just ahead of the stock market crash in 1987.

One of the prime movers behind the Burford property group, he is now turning his attention to sport through involvement in the Saracens rugby club and a current bid to take over Nottingham Forest.

And once again it is Singer which appears to be providing the focus for Mr Wray's interests. In January, the bank launched a collective fund to invest in football clubs.

This venture has proved a magnet to yet another personality, Alan Hansen, the former Liverpool star and soccer commentator, who is acting as adviser to the fund.

As Mr Hodson explains, this is the key to Singer's identity: "We are a collection of people who bring things to the business. We don't sit around making grand strategic plans about which area to move into next."

People's Phone is a practical case in point. "Our group's investment was brought to the board by Nigel Wray, although he has no role in the day-to-day running of Singers," says Mr Hodson.

This attitude of pragmatic growth has brought a number of acquisitions, with the emphasis always on niche areas where the market is growing, and which are largely ignored by "the big boys", as Mr Hodson describes the likes of Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

So is he worried that overseas banks, desperate to get into London fund management, for example, may have their eye on his bank? "I don't get the flavour that people are stalking us.

"We want to get the massage over that we're not just an asset play - earnings are rising fast," he says. This growth enabled Singers to announce a 16 per cent increase in its total dividend for last year.

While no business dominates, most earnings from the managed businesses come from broking, even before taking account of the 45 per cent stake in Carnegie, the Swedish stockbroker owned by Singers.

The bank bought what Mr Hodson calls "the Swedish Cazenove" two years ago from Nordbanken, and with its 450 staff in the City's Chiswell Street, it is as big as Singers. Carnegie reported profits up 12.5 per cent to pounds 16.1m.

Now headed by Lars Bertmar, Carnegie was originally founded by David Carnegie, a Scot who emigrated to Goteborg on the Swedish west coast in the 18th Century, after backing Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Meanwhile, Singer's London-based broker, Collins Stewart, now houses the irascible Terry Smith. Collins is a specialist low-cost agency broker set up by Singer which also makes markets in smaller companies.

It sponsors floats on the Alternative Investment Market and is corporate broker to businesses like Westminster Health Care. Collins also had a good year, chipping in pounds 7.6m to profits. It was involved in 22 deals and raised more than pounds 300m for clients.

Singer's fund management operation has traditionally been led by private client business. Funds under management leapt 58 per cent to pounds 6bn last year, including funds which Singer took over from troubled Knight Williams in June 1995.

Tony Fraher, formerly of Morgan Grenfell, now manages the fund management arm, which was behind the January launch of the Football Fund.

Singers has not neglected old-fashioned merchant banking, recently poaching Charles Price from NM Rothschild to head up the division, something Mr Hodson regards as quite a coup.

So does he have any regrets? "I wish I'd invested in Burford - just like everyone else does," he replies. Burford is, of course, chaired by Nigel Wray. Apart from that, "as long as the markets remain active, we will continue to prosper".

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Customer Service Executive / Inbound Customer Service Agent

£18 - 23k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Customer Service Executiv...

ASP.NET Web Developer / .NET Developer

£60 - 65k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a ASP.NET Web Developer / ....

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Project Coordinator - 12 month contract

£27000 - £32000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large charity ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past